Hey! I’d like to talk more in depth about this, if you’re willing. And I’d like to apologize for taking so long to follow up on this. This shouldn’t happen again.
Basically my premise (and assumption) is that if the economic objectives were long term oriented, it would be, by consequence, focused on solving issues that trouble us today, like climate change / sustainable economics and world poverty.
It would also probably have it’s own issues and “exploitabilties” that we do not deal with in current economic systems.
Alex- Kinda sorta but I’m wary of a Utopian approach. I have read a lot of Utopian science fiction. It’s… boring… and preachy. Somebody comes to the Utopian world, and there is one or more people who inform them about the perfections of this world, and every time the visitor says something about our world the Utopian reacts with horror and describes some other perfect thing.
Second reason: I have a friend who is an atheist and a Socialist – I am neither, but this is not the problem. He was ranting about how bad religion is, and I finally figured out my reason for not liking such approaches, even when I mostly agree. Yes, religion has been responsible for atrocities. Yes, Socialism has been responsible for atrocities. Yes, Capitalism has been responsible for atrocities. But literally EVERY SINGLE ONE of these systems was proposed as an ideal. So what is the problem?
The point in common with all these systems is that they are MADE UP OF PEOPLE. It is not the systems that are killing us – it is the people. We are the problem. And unless and until we become different, that is the way it will stay.
Which of course brings us to dystopias in which genetic manipulation creates monsters. Now, you would not be surprised if I were to say that I do not believe in monsters – monsters are imaginings people conjure up to depict something that they fear or hate (which often comes from fear – “Fear is the Mind-Killer” is more true than we may realize…). With one exception: the things that human beings do to each other and to other living things out of this fear can be monstrous.
It is not up to me to preach to anyone here. I am no better – though perhaps not worse – than any of us. This is a major appeal to me of Yudhanjaya’s discourse on Risk Bushido. It describes the core approach to existence of educated practitioners. It doesn’t create a Utopia. It is not impossible that over time it could influence the World for the better – but also likely it could influence it for the worse. It elevates people’s understanding of the consequences of their actions. I sometimes hope this could improve the world. I have less confidence in institutions.
Benedictines are after all not that much different. It is a long term approach, but of a different type.
Absolutely agree. And yet, we are programmable. We acquire and cultivate taste and even “instinctive” reactions. In my lifetime, cigarette smoke has gone from cool to ghastly in most people’s perception. Cars are going the same way. Yuval Harari was on to something when he wrote, in Sapiens, that the real battlefield is for deciding what we want to want.
Benedictine monasteries are no utopias. With small numbers of people cooped in for the very long run, they must experience terrible tensions. But they seem to have found, in the Rule, an equilibrium-ish way to interact, that allows them to do incredible feats. Some of these feats manifest in the economic domain. A Benedictine abbot once told me “We tend to get prosperous, because monks work hard”. And they work hard because work is part of their spiritual quest, which is the defining aspect of their entire lives. Benedictine monks will tend the garden, or brew beer (here in Belgium) with the same dedication of a professional athlete to training and competitions. No lay worker, paid in mere money, can get close to that level of motivation.
I agree with much of what you say. A few points:
My undergraduate degree was in The Study of Religion, focusing on Islam (especially Sufism), and with a minor focus on Gnosticism – yes, of course, the most obscure (and fascinating) of the obscure. So I have more familiarity with what you are saying than might be expected.
Thomas More, who wrote the original Utopia in 1516, took part in the spiritual activities of the Carthusian monastery near where he lived, and considered becoming a monk. Many people think the rules of life in Utopia to be very harsh (although More thought them lenient), but this rigor derived in significant part from the “Rule” of a monastery, which strictly controlled the lives of communicants in order to achieve the desired behavior.
This is not a problem for Covenant (and the other communities in the World we are building), which is a voluntary community, but it has already become apparent to me that these Distrikts are places where people who agree with the rules of the place live – they are not “countries” in the normal sense – places where no matter what you believe, the laws are those of the ruling system, so regardless of your thoughts you are forced to adhere to them. This dissonance forces governments to do one of two things: if they are democratic, they end up bending to the ideas of the population and changing their laws to fit how their citizens think; or if they are authoritarian, they force the population through police action (China or Russia) or large fines (like Singapore) to act as the government tells them – and even these bend somewhat over time if the force of popular opinion is very strong and the consequences of the government acting to defer to the population are not too great (like environmental curbs in China, or regional elections in Russia – where we are still waiting to see if the government will continue to allow them). SO… the consequence of static systems in the Distrikts is a lot of emigration, especially of young people.
Look at the case of kibbutzim in Israel. Very important for understanding what happens. The kibbutzim were founded by young Socialist Zionists who were completely committed to Communist ownership of everything in the kibbutz, common raising of children, equality in incomes – the whole nine yards. This ideological fervor lasted for four decades, give or take – through the establishment of the State of Israel, several wars with surrounding hostile countries, the "flowering of the desert (they were predominantly agricultural). Once Israel became rich and high-tech, the ideology weakened. My cousin Bruce, who had a PhD in physics from the US, went to Israel to work on a kibbutz and raise tomatoes. Several decades later, it became a moshav (less restricted, less Communist than a kibbutz), young people were leaving, he ended up getting a job as a paralegal in a nearby city to pay for his children’s education… modern life intervened. Look at the histories of communes in the USA, including New Harmony in Indiana, established by Robert Owens in 1824, the famous British Socialist, that only lasted four years, Charles Fourier’s Socialist “Phalansteries” of the early 19th century, and on and on…
There is a reason why Christian monasteries, and Buddhist monasteries, and Sufi orders, are the ONLY places where intentional communities have lasted longer than mostly a few years, but sometimes a few decades among secular types. a. They have a very large group of potential members among the devotees. b. They have large institutional structures which have supported these institutions, at least verbally. c. They purport to have trans-physical goals and support from God, which is a vastly better motivator than an ideology, no matter how inspiring, as we have found with the fanatical but relatively short-term devotion inspired by Communism.
Benedictine monasteries are PRECISELY Utopias – which is to say pressure cookers inhabited by marginal people, each of whom has a personal reason to be there which is so powerful it overrides the craziness of being there. I had a friend who was a Jesuit, and he described a bit of how impossible it is for a “normal” human to live under such conditions – he eventually left the Order. It makes me laugh and cry that people who are capable of – NOT withstanding the system, but BECOMING PART OF such a system are elevated to the role of confessors about human problems they have never experienced and cannot possibly understand, being handed the role of caregivers for young men and women when they have mostly never resolved their own dilemmas and conflicts, intellectual, spiritual or sexual (and we know where that has taken us), etc. And I very much respect the choices the religious make – but I also know how warped and alien their lives are as a result.
I agree humans are “programmable” to some extent, although this choice of words makes me very uneasy – this way horrible soul-destroying, sometimes mass-murdering dystopias lie. But yes, freedom of choice is overrated, especially in the USA, especially in Texas, as we have also noticed lately. So there are ways that humans can be “incentivized” to do what we all believe as a result of evidence is in the best interests of those people (with a BIG reservation having to do with such things as Eugenics, which was once thought to be scientifically sound, etc). I am of course thinking about Nudge, the book by the behavioral economist Richard Thaler and the Law School professor Cass Sunstein in 2008 (Nudge (book) - Wikipedia), on which Obama’s famous “Nudge unit” was built. This is marginal change, closely watched for consequences, and then built upon over time. These people are very careful never to prevent people from making a choice – they only offer the choice in such a way as to increase the likelihood of a choice that fits their understanding of one that is better for people. It is SO MUCH GENTLER than the God-given authoritarianism of a monastic Rule.
So I support Covenant, as an intentional experimental Utopian community. But I do so knowing all the things I have noted above. It seems to me that these realities introduce a great opportunity for stories, many of which will be about the kinds of issues mentioned.
The idea of “work done in a spirit of service is worship” resonates for me as a Baha’i – it is part of almost all religions – but not “any” work – it must be work that benefits the community.
A caution on that theme is, of course, the motto written by Nazis over many concentration camps: “Arbeit Macht Frei”. It really brings us back to the questions of “what work” and “work done in a spirit of service (to humanity and/or to the Universe)”. This ideal, like most, can be subverted and stolen for evil purposes – as they say “the price of freedom is constant vigilance” against the evil forces within people’s hearts – the evil in each of us is always more of a threat than the evil of those outside. Another good source for stories about Covenant.
My other note is that Father Cassian’s comment (and Ben’s agreement) that God must be central is valid, but only up to a point. Ultimately God is nothing unless it is an expression of the way the Universe actually functions on a spiritual level. It is not religion – religion is an organization run by people who interpret various other people’s perceptions of the way the Universe operates. Those people can be wrong – sometimes VERY wrong – or they can suppose that a given situation can be understood by reference to a particular teaching, when in reality that teaching may not be relevant. Etc. The consequences of this are that 1) The people running the organization must have impeccable qualifications in a. spiritual understanding, and b. life experience – NEVER one without the other. 2) There must be someone with a suspicious mind who is constantly monitoring and questioning the rules set by the folks running the organization. 3) There should be some supportive and interested parties outside the organization who can act as arbiters in the case of disputes or reports, and those people MUST COMMIT to bringing in secular authorities if circumstances warrant.
So it is perfectly warranted – I would go so far as to say that it is EVEN BETTER – if one were to substitute “The Universe” for “God” in one’s description of the “Higher Power” to which one dedicates one’s work in such an institution, so long as one actually takes it seriously, and tries to make a “good-faith” effort to determine how the nature of The Universe’s spiritual structure should influence the institution and the people in it. Benedictines are a useful reference, but don’t take them as a guide. Nor the Buddhist sangha. Read about all those, but when you sit and pray and meditate on how in 2023, among a diverse community of folks, one can build a community on this planet in accordance with a current version of What is Best, come up with your own answers.
It’s always nice to read you, Philip! I defer to your obviously superior knowledge about the history of religions. And agreed about the potential, er, downsides of bringing a Higher Purpose into human things.
The main purpose of The Covenant in Witness is to experiment with a theory of labor supply that is not “homo economicus trades income with leisure by equalling their marginal utilities”. It turns out (and of course!) that, to do that, you have to rip the entire value theory (and, by implication, dubious assumptions about “human nature”) out of the ground and start again.
The beauty of this move is that monks actually are – and have been for 15 centuries – workers, and they actually function according to a different theory of value, and that theory explains what we see about their labor supply. In other words, it’s a theory borne out by the data. We set out to make the point that economic thinking need not be as constrained as it has been since the 1970s, and I believe this particular argument reinforces that point in a satisfactory way!